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Parental child abduction and its impact

When a parent kidnaps a child long-term problems begin

I have been studying the impact of parental child abduction for the last 20 years and have published extensively on the topic. Recent events and articles have placed it again in the news. Elizabeth Smart, kidnapped by a non-family member for nine months when she 14-years-old testifed this week in court during the trial against her abductor, Brian Mitchell. Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped when she was 11 and held for 18 years. During that time she gave birth to two children. While these high profile non-family kidnappings capture the headlines, much more common are family abductions. Today's New York Times carries a front page article about using the I.R.S. to track down abductors who file tax returns. Department of Justice statistics report that approximately 200,000 family abductions occur each year and that 6% of these last for longer than six months.

Most recently, and working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), I completed interviews with 8 people (now all over 21-years-old) who were parentally kidnapped when they were children. The focus of the interviews (the report is available on the NCMEC website) was to learn what would help families reunify with each other after a kidnapping. For today's blog I will focus on the impact on children. Some of this information appears in my co-authored book (with Rebecca Hegar), When Parents Kidnap. Imagine a child being taken by a parent with whom the child does not feel particularly close, moved away from friends and other family members, and living in changing residences. Imagine the state of mind of the abductor who is the primary caretaker. Add these two together and the stage is set for a difficult time for the child. While the child is on the run, the left-behind parent is often frantic and expending all his or her time involved in the search. The left-behind parent's well-being, relationships, and work life are put at risk and, upon recovery of the child (not all children are recovered) the parent struggles to get things back to normal when such a hopeful vision may not be possible.

According to David Finkelhor et al.'s telephone survey (NISMART), 16% of abducted children experience emotional harm, 4% are physically abused, and 1% are sexually abused. Other research, including our own, found reactions to abducton include: nightmares, fears of doors and windows, bedwetting (depending on age), fear of authority and strangers, anger at abductor and left-behind parent, depression, anxiety, and school and peer problems.

Problems for many adults persist into their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s (the oldest person I interviewed was 53). Today's New York Times' article talks about cooperation between the IRS and searching parents to help find missing children. The sooner cooperation can begin the better it will be for children and their families. The impact of these long-term abductions is significant enough that new steps toward prevention are clearly needed.

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